Can the Captain Back off?

Murtaza Solangi believes that Imran Khan’s administration has opened too many fronts against itself

Can the Captain Back off?
The state of affairs in high offices of the country was revealed to the public in the early hours of Wednesday morning when Prime Minister Imran addressed the nation in a poorly edited speech. This speech came soon after Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), presented its budget for the upcoming fiscal year in the Parliament.

The prime minister’s speech featured the usual themes: vengeance, threats, personal insults as well as a lecture on the history of Islam which was badly distorted and blurted out in haphazard blabbering. This happened on the day when the public was expecting some hope or consolation from the populist premier after his party announced a tax-heavy budget which will hit the middle and working classes the most.

Earlier on Tuesday, Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shehbaz was arrested. On Monday, the much-awaited arrest of former President Asif Zardari took place in Islamabad. PTI leaders, Imran Khan included, did not distance themselves from this wave of arrests to dispel the perception that this process was influenced by the government. Instead, they celebrated the arrests, took credit for them and announced them as a completion of their election pledges.

In the National Assembly, when the budget was being presented and with Imran Khan himself present in the hall, the Opposition created ruckus loud enough to catch attention of the galleries, but not overpowering the budget speech. The chants of ‘Go Niazi Go’, however, did affect the premier who responded with a dance of his own.

It was clear that the premier carried the mood set by the noisy session well into his late night babbling. With the midnight announcement by the PM that an investigation commission under his personal supervision - involving members of the ISI, IB, FIA, FBR and SECP - will investigate how foreign loans during the PPP and PML-N tenures were utilised in the last decade, it became clear that all routes for reconciliation with his administration have been closed for good.

Although Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has resolved to block the PTI in passing the budget, it is highly unlikely that the Opposition will be able to do that so quickly. Although coalition partners of the PTI - like MQM and BNP-Mengal - have raised concerns, it is too early at this stage for them to quit the government.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari asked his party workers to remain calm on Monday when Asif Zardari was arrested but there were still some symbolic protests across the country. It is true that the party does not have strength outside Sindh, but in the weeks and months ahead, PPP, combined with the PML-N in the Punjab, and BNP-Mengal and MAP of Mehmood Achakzai in Balochistan and JUI-F, ANP and PTM in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is capable of creating debilitating conditions for Imran Khan all over the country, especially when people are angry over deteriorating economic conditions, rising unemployment, inflation, price hikes and rising costs of utilities like electricity, gas, petroleum products and CNG.

It is as if Imran Khan’s administration has a death wish: it has also opened a new front with the reference against Justice Qazi Faez Isa, a highly respected judge of the Supreme Court. Regardless of the outcome of the reference, the lawyers’ community has been provoked. Efforts by the government to create a dissident group within the community have not helped its case, despite media coverage provided to them under coercion.

Now, if the Supreme Judicial Council throws away the reference against Justice Isa, the judge and the lawyers’ community will be emboldened and if the council recommends sacking of the Balochistan jurist, a new door for a lawyers’ movement will open.

Maulana Fazal Rehman is supposed to announce his much-awaited All Parties Conference this week because he is itching to confront Imran Khan, who has missed no opportunity to engage in personalised attacks against the cleric.

The stakes are high.

If the opposition succeeds in bringing the country to a halt, there are better chances for a successful vote of no confidence against Imran Khan in the Parliament, with the support of some members of the PTI. There may be an in-house change with a new face from the party. The chances of dissolution of the assembly are very slim, however, as the miltablishment would not like another electoral exercise without any certainty as to who would emerge victorious.

Imran Khan, at war with national politicos, has tried to ease relations with Pakistan’s arch rival India. During Eid holidays, foreign secretary Sohail Chaudhry offered his Eid prayers in Delhi where his family was still there as it was his last assignment as Pakistan’s High Commissioner. Indian media reported that his presence in Delhi was aimed at securing a meeting between both premiers in Bishkek and even possibly in London during the Cricket World Cup. Apparently that did not materialise even if it was desired.

Recently, Imran Khan wrote a third letter to Modi wishing to resume dialogue over all thorny issues, including terrorism but got only frosty snubs in response. The latest development relates to granting of permission by Pakistan to allow the VVIP aircraft of the Indian premier to fly over Pakistani airspace on his way to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. On Wednesday, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced that Modi would take a longer route through Iran and Oman to reach Bishkek, another snub to Pakistan.

Next week, the FATF meeting in Orlando, Florida takes place where Pakistan’s case for reviewing the grey listing is on the agenda. Most analysts, however, believe that given the strategic needs of the US and the Gulf monarchies, Pakistan will continue to be on the grey list, despite Indian lobbying to move Pakistan to the Black List category.

The political temperature will undoubtedly rise both within and without the parliament. This is a do-or-die moment for the opposition. If they are able to remove Imran Khan’s administration, it will be a big victory and a big entry for both Bilawal and Maryam. If they fail, an entirely new political chessboard with a new set of actors will emerge on the national horizon, changing the very political culture Pakistan has had for the last seven decades. It is probably for these moments that Chairman Mao said, “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad